Backstage at the George Gershwin International Music Competition

Whether one considers music competitions a necessary evil of the trade or a stimulating opportunity for disseminating excellence and for young artists to shine and transform their careers, there are plenty of good vibes to be found at the George Gershwin International Competition in New York. Photo: George Gershwin Inaugurated in 2013, the event is still securing its place among existing high-ranking competitions that grant management and performance opportunities, and monetary awards. Now in...
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Music Traveler – Practice Rooms For Musicians Now Uber Style

Every musician knows about the predicament of finding a practice room to rehearse on a decent piano before a recital, with a larger than usual ensemble or even a dance group, without irritating their neighbors. Especially travelling musicians are often struggling for accommodations, looking for ways to make their lives easier when hauling their instruments from one end of the city to the next. Providing assistance for musicians’ varied needs is the mission of...
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Pianist Asiya Korepanova –artistic force and creative incubator

At the concert event titled: In memory of a great Artist, on December 9th, 2018 at 3 pm, dedicated to works of Tchaikovsky as part of the Sparkill, N.Y. Union Arts Center’s concert series, Korepanova shows her cycle of 18 drawings inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72, for the first time in New York.  (photo credit: Emil Matveev) She also shares the stage, performing  excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s large scale work with the series’ artistic directors,...
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Israeli Chamber Project – Projects within the unending pursuit of musical exploration

Embarking on their second decade as a chamber ensemble, the Israeli Chamber Project starts the 2018/19 season with a unique program, coined the Debussy Effect. With the music world marking the centennial of Debussy’s death in 1918, the ensemble takes the iconic French composer’s romantic Piano Trio and his later Première Rhapsody as point of reference, affirming the profound effect of his work on three of his compatriots, Ravel, Faure, and Salzedo. The October...
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Orpheus and the “Underworld” of the Conductor-less Chamber Ensemble

The orchestra’s chosen namesake, the Greek mythical hero Orpheus whose music could charm wild beasts and coax trees and rocks to dance, evokes the orchestra’s founding aspirations from 1972. While Hermes was said to have invented the lyre, Orpheus was the one to perfect it, imbuing it with power – even over Hades – allowing him return passage from the Underworld. What has been perfected at Orpheus is its groundbreaking initiative to introduce democratic choice into the traditional orchestral hierarchy, historically led by a single conductor. At Orpheus, it’s all about the music, experienced and performed by equally important musicians in a collective, self-governed environment.

Photocredit: Matt Dine

Sitting down at Orpheus’ offices at Manhattan’s Riverside Church with Alan Kay, principal clarinetist and one of the three artistic directors of the ensemble this season (the others being Laura Frautschi and James Wilson), allows for a glimpse into the now historic transformative ideas of the famously conductor-less orchestra.

Recommended by the great clarinet virtuoso Charles Neidich, Kay started his collaboration with the orchestra as a young substitute performer in 1985. He was elected as a member shortly thereafter, when a spot in the ensemble opened up.

“It is a lot about friendship. We do care about each other on a personal level and that comes from listening to each other,” he exclaims. “We are not about one single point of view, but about group decisions. How to play music is constantly re-evaluated and up for discussion by giving multiple performances of the same repertoire with alternating positions, which keeps things fresh at all times,” he says. Kay describes the invigorated spirit that characterized Orpheus’ initial formation and ongoing development: “The ideas that came from the sixties when we were young musicians, this uninhibited feeling of being able to achieve anything with our lust for freedom of expression…this got implemented in this new way of making music at Orpheus, which quickly became a sensation, and wildly recognized with a legendary long term contract by Deutsche Grammophone, previously unheard of for such a young ensemble.”

Photo credit: Matt Dine.

Producing four LPs every year in bi-annual recording sessions with the German label put Orpheus on the international map. With international star soloists flocking to record with the group, and composers submitting new commissions, Orpheus proudly looks back on its 71 albums, including its Grammy Award-winning take on Stravinsky in its 2000 recording, Shadow Dances, and 43 premieres of original, commissioned works.

Kay says Orpheus’ “amazing” recording streak lasted into the nineties, but has functionally ended as the recording industry has entered into an era of tumultuous change. “Recordings of Orpheus performances are still done, occasionally, mostly consisting of live recordings with patching sessions in the studio, but they have not gained the same recognition as marketing tools as our recordings from those previous years,” he remarks. “A decisive factor for our Carnegie Hall concert series and connected outreach tours remain our guest artists. Their choice depends a bit on logistical reasoning these days, but they all are established artists, who bring interesting ideas and enjoy collaborating in this personal interaction that we are about,” adds Kay.

Indeed, musicians at Orpheus remain involved on every level of the ensemble’s artistic, and by now quite elaborate administrative, process. From branding and ticket marketing, to setting the order of rehearsals, rotating concert masters and parts – which alternate for each performance and even each piece – every musician is involved.

Michael Volpert, renowned for his almost encyclopedic musical knowledge holds the title of ‘Director of Artistic Planning’ at Orpheus, and modestly describes his role as “making sure that everyone shows up at the right place at the right time.” While offering me coffee, Volpert shares his insights with me about Orpheus’ complex three-headed system, which comes up for election every three years. “With the orchestra’s growing success and mounting outreach strategies, the administrative system’s scope has to adjust,” he explains. Yet, the concert master committee makes sure the essentials continue to be in place. “The concert master tells me for each and every performance where the musicians are sitting, and who they want to sit with, who their stand partner for each piece will be, and who will play 2nd violin in this setting. It remains a totally democratic structure,” says Volpert.

This signature democratic mode of operation has been trademarked as the ‘Orpheus process,’ and has led to leadership research in other fields; studies and seminars on democratic leadership models inspired by Orpheus have been conducted at Harvard, Morgan Stanley and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospitals, among others. ‘Access Orpheus’ and the ‘Orpheus Institute’ are further symbols of the ensemble’s active outreach initiative, and the academic and entrepreneurial value of their method. These programs bring Orpheus’ process and institutional values, but also its engaging performances to students of all ages, and create opportunities for further artistic growth. After all, building new audiences is recognized as a premium responsibility of modern arts organizations and ensembles. Photo Credit: Matt Dine

This year, Orpheus has followed up on the salon concert format, with smaller ensemble performances held at the intimate space of violin and bow-maker Tarisio. “These concerts are ideal for getting to know young artists, and our commissioning process now also includes Jazz repertoire. Repertoire has to follow performance practice, and arranging larger works for smaller ensembles becomes also an important factor for staying relevant in a constantly changing music environment,” recognizes Kay.

To find out how Orpheus’ musicians will spend the next season, check out their concert schedule.

Pegasus: The Orchestra – Cultural Incubator of Community

Pegasus, the winged divine stallion of Greek mythology, friend of the muses bringing lighting and thunder from Olympus to the people, perfectly embodies the orchestra’s broad aspirations: “As musicians and artists we dream of achieving new heights and letting our imagination take flight,” says Pegasus founder, pianist and composer Karén Hakobyan: “We as humans have always dreamt of defying gravity. Music does just that – it gives us wings.” Hakobyan passionately embraces his new...
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ASPECT Foundation for Music and Art – classical concerts building on cultural and communal context

From its 2011 beginnings in London’s bustling concert scene, the classical music series ASPECT embraced presentations that integrate classical music programs in a specific cultural framework. With its syllabus of accompanying talks surrounding its traditional classical music programs, examining everything from composers’ lives and the historic relevance of their works, to connections between musical expression, art and poetry, the not-for-profit foundation became widely frequented, especially within London’s large community of actively engaged amateur musicians....
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The Arts Circle – I Am Something, We Are Everything

Elena Baksht is something – again. The Russian pianist, founding director of the Southampton Arts Festival and music educator has now implemented “The Arts Circle,” into New York’s cultural scene. A recital evening at the venerable Koscuiszko Foundation on the Upper East Side, featured the inspired pianist with the eminent Italian flutist Mario Carbotta, in a program titled A poetic journey from Prokofiev to Fellini and Kundalini. The connection between both musicians had been made through...
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Pianist Steven Lin – focus on essential music making

What does it take these days for a young pianist to survive in a talent market saturated with more and more prolific contenders? Given the unusually high-ranking technical, as well as musical eloquence young artists are achieving through training at top educational breeding hothouses, a good portion of talent and practice alone – as important as may be, will hardly suffice. And yet, while it seems harder than ever to distinguish the rays of true talent shining through a thick crust...
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Vika goes wild – a classical pianist taps into her passion for rock

When her parents were told that she – at kindergarten age – had perfect pitch and a talent for music, there was no going back: “My parents took it seriously, and the natural consequence seemed to be continued studies at a special music school. That included competitions, exams, and concert performances under high pressure, requiring utmost commitment and all the other expectations that go along with that…and- it was all understood,” says pianist Viktorya...
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